“When I stop having fun, I’ll stop doing this.”
Those are the words of Tony Bruno, an icon in the sports radio industry, who is still going strong as a 40-year veteran. It’s inspiring that Tony has worked so hard for so long and still has a passion for sports talk that won’t die. I think it’s also a great guideline for anybody else in the business. If the entertainer is no longer entertained, how can we expect the product to be entertaining?
If you listen to The Tony Bruno Show podcast, you’ll hear a host who simply gets it. Tony knows that being a successful broadcaster is all about providing opinions, entertainment, and showcasing your personality. There is plenty more wisdom in Tony’s words including the most useful piece of advice he can give to anybody who’s aspiring to achieve some of the success that he’s enjoyed. It was a pleasure catching up with Tony. I’m confident you will thoroughly enjoy his views and storytelling and understand why Jason Barrett decided to name an award in his honor, which will be handed out for the first time at the Barrett Sports Media Summit in Los Angeles in February.
Brian Noe: What aspect of sports radio gives you the most enjoyment today?
Tony Bruno: I think the fact that there are so many different ways to do it. The old days it used to be where you were either a straight man or you were trying to be funny. I’ve always been a combination of both. Nowadays you’re hearing more and more people using personality and establishing themselves as not just another talking head, but someone who has personality. That’s what builds audience. The people gravitate toward you and they like your personality.
Everybody has an opinion. There’s a gazillion radio shows and podcasts and bloggers out there who are giving their opinions on stuff. It’s not about having a differing opinion. How many different opinions can you have on the same topic? It’s about how can you make it entertaining to people. I think that’s the direction we’ve seen it go.
I remember when I was starting, there was no such thing as personality sports radio. It was just sports talk radio. I think we’ve seen that change now. You see it on television shows. You see it on morning shows. You just can’t do an x’s and o’s sports show anymore and expect to develop a big audience. Good Morning Football is a classic example. They break down the x’s and o’s, but they have a lot of fun doing it. I think people react to hearing people enjoy what they do. It’s about enjoying what you do and that’s what I’ve always done in my career.
Noe: Is there a common personality trait that you can identify among the most popular hosts?
TB: Not really, everybody’s different. People always ask me — when I talk to young people — they say, “I want to be like you. How do you do that?” I say, “Well, you be yourself. You can’t be me.”
I grew up listening to a lot of great radio people, not necessarily just sports, because there was no sports talk when I was a kid growing up and listening to the radio at night after my dad died. I don’t know why. I just started listening to the radio. I found it fascinating.
Living in Philly I could hear radio stations all over the country. I thought there was something special about hearing St. Louis, Florida, New York, and Indiana radio stations. Hearing great play-by-play guys do games all over the country. Hearing great DJ’s or talk show hosts. I was just fascinated with radio. It’s not just about being somebody else. It’s about being yourself — trying to be as true to yourself as you are — and as real as you can be.
Everybody has a personality. Letting it out and having people determine whether or not they like your personality is the most important facet. You don’t have to be a personality to be successful, but I think nowadays the most successful people are the ones who have some sort of a personality that people can gravitate to.
Noe: When fans run up to you and express how much they like you, do you ever think, “Really? I’m the guy that does it for you?” Or do you harken back to when you were a kid and felt the same way toward broadcasters?
TB: I always harken back to when I was a kid because I was fortunate. We’re talking about back in the ‘60s. Radio was mostly AM, staticky at night. I would call radio stations and the guys on the air would help me as a young kid. So, whenever people text me — nowadays, you can call a radio station, or you can email, or you can go to Twitter or Facebook and contact people in the media that you respect or like and ask them questions. Back then it was either calling or writing a letter. Getting in touch with somebody is much easier nowadays. Back then it was difficult.
If you really wanted it, which is what I did, I just went about my business as a shy kid just trying to absorb as much as I could from the people who I looked up to and said, “Wow, you’re great.” I’ve been fortunate in my career because I’ve been doing it so long — I guess it’s a sign of longevity — is that people look up to people who’ve been around a long time.
There’s a flip side to that too. There are a lot of young people who don’t respect elders. That’s their choice. I don’t demand respect. I don’t tell people, “Hey, do you know who I am? You should respect me for what I’ve accomplished.”
I’m just a guy who’s had a career a long time. Over 40 years. Those people who know who I am regardless of whether it was on news talk radio, or sports talk radio, or the Madden games, or television, or anything that I’ve done in my career. I don’t consider myself a celebrity. I don’t consider myself anybody special. I don’t think of myself as better than anybody else.
When people recognize me — I was in the airport in San Francisco flying on a red-eye coming home last week from visiting family on vacation, and a guy across the way said, “Hey, Tony Bruno. I love your show.” When he got closer to me I said, “Where are you from?” He said, “San Diego.” Doing all the national stuff, people still recognize me from all over the country.
It’s not just a Philly thing. It’s more that I’ve done this for a long time all over the country in different cities, small towns to big towns, and the fact that people still recognize me is sort of flattering. Not sort of, it’s definitely flattering. Every time someone does, I just smile and say, “Wow, hopefully I’ve had a positive impact on people’s lives.”
Noe: What aspect of local radio do you prefer over national radio?
TB: To be honest with you — not that I don’t love doing local radio, I’ve done it most of my career — I think the thing that really made me feel better about doing national is that you’re not just beating the same dead horse every day. The one thing I’ve noticed about local radio, especially in markets where one sport dominates over another, is that you’re really doing the same thing day after day.
It’s sort of like political talk radio. Every day you listen to political talk radio, it’s bashing Trump or praising Trump. One way or the other. Except on sports radio, like here in Philly for example, it’s all about the Eagles all the time. The Sixers are getting some love. The Phillies in spring training and with all the baseball stuff going on — that plays. The Flyers when they’re not playing well nobody calls and talks about them. It’s not even a subject you hear discussed on the radio.
In a town like Philly where it’s all about the Eagles, even long before they won a Super Bowl, it was always about the Eagles. During the week it becomes tiring to do the same thing day after day after day. Now, of course, it’s all about whether Carson Wentz or Nick Foles is the future and those kinds of things that you hear incessantly on sports talk radio locally.
Nationally, at least, you can delve into other things that are of national interest, but also won’t turn off people in certain markets that don’t necessarily care about that story. That’s why when you watch all the morning talk shows — whether it’s the ESPN ones or the FOX ones — they deal with the major issues of the day in sports. That’s what I like. I like dealing with a couple of topics a day rather than the same story day after day.
Noe: What are some of the things that you enjoy talking about on a sports show that go outside of sports?
TB: Everything. That’s one thing I’ve always done. I’m not a big political talk guy. I make some comments here and there because I care about everything. My life is not just about sports 24/7.
I’ll take some shots at Trump. I’ll take some shots at Democrats. I’m not a partisan guy. I don’t really care one way or the other. It’s got to be topical stuff. I don’t know every pop artist now on Top 40 radio, but I try to keep myself up to date as an older guy on things that matter to people.
I have to know a lot about things that I really don’t care about. If you don’t care about something and somebody else does and the majority of the country wants to talk about it, you can’t say, “Listen, I don’t care about it so I don’t want to deal with it.” You deal with it because people are talking about it. It’s not about being trendy. It’s about knowing what’s going on outside the world of sports, so that you can have intelligent conversations when that becomes something that people want to talk about outside of sports.
Noe: Can you think of something that you’ve discussed outside of sports and politics that has gotten a strong reaction?
TB: It’s funny because on my podcast that I’m doing now — which I have the freedom to do whenever I want — it could be silly stuff. It could be like during the holiday season talking about all of the outrage over this year’s offensive songs that should be pulled from radio stations. Those kinds of things. It’s pop culture. It’s what it is. It’s really pop culture — holiday music, PC culture and those things. People talk about that every day whether it’s sports or entertainment or anything.
The whole world revolves around PC culture now. I think PC culture is probably the number one issue that people better know about. You better know about the top TV shows and the top Netflix shows and that kind of stuff if you really want to be well-rounded so to speak.
Do you have to? No, but as you get older the young generation thinks, “You guys are old. You don’t know about all of the alt bands that are hot right now. You don’t know about this or that. You mentioned something from the ‘60s and nobody cares about that, only old people.”
Yet if you listen to TV nowadays, every commercial you hear for the most part is using old songs from the ‘60s ‘70s and ‘80s. A lot of people are turning on to this stuff, not because we’re older, it’s because they sound good.
To me, I never knocked older generations when I was a kid. I see a lot of millennials out there, some of whom will knock my generation and say, “Well, you guys are all old and you don’t know what’s going on in the world.”
The fact is I know a lot about what’s going on in the world because I’ve seen a lot of everything that’s happened. That’s the one advantage to being older is that I’ve lived through pretty much every major thing that’s happened since 1960. I was born in ‘52, so in the last 60 years I’ve seen pretty much every major story — after the World Wars of course — the moon landing, assassinations of presidents, all of the other major things that have happened that have shaped my lifetime.
I had to know about that stuff because I was doing news when I started in this business in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Then I transition to sports when I saw an opening that there was really a void on radio stations when you’re turning around the dial. There was WFAN in New York and very few other what you would call full-time dedicated to sports talk radio or expanded sports coverage. I luckily made that transition in the late ‘70s in to doing mostly sports and then completely sports from 1980 on.
Noe: What was the break on your career path that you were most excited about when you got that new opportunity?
TB: I had a couple of them. In the ‘70s, Philly sports was pretty good. I was covering the Phillies when they made their ascendance with Mike Schmidt and Larry Bowa when they were rookies in ‘73. I started covering sports in ‘71 in Philly. I was around when the Flyers started to become good. The Phillies were good. The 76ers had one of the worst seasons ever, so they were known for being the worst team in NBA history in the ‘70s. But you had the Phillies. The Eagles were mediocre.
The national media — the CBS’s and all the AP and UPI Audio people we’re always looking for somebody in markets to go out to games with a tape recorder, and to do an update after a game, or during the game if it was a playoff game. I was one of those guys that a couple of people noticed in Philly and they started calling me. I was on CBS Sports and then UPI Audio as a correspondent.
It still happens to this day in every local market you have that one guy that covers the games for you and you get heard. I was heard in New York. Charley Steiner, believe it or not, was working for a radio network in New York. He heard me and he had me doing stuff for him. He hired me in 1974 to do weekend updates on a network called the RKO Radio Network. Keith Olbermann was doing RKO 1 updates. That’s when I met Keith in 1980.
I was hired to do the two-minute updates on RKO, which was sent to most non-rock ‘n’ roll stations. I was on whatever the other FM radio stations were covering our updates every hour. I’d go to New York every weekend and Keith and I worked together. John Madden started doing his radio stuff up there, and Don Criqui. I got to work with some really, really, really talented people. That was my first exposure to any kind of network, but it wasn’t long-form. It was just two-minute sports updates every hour.
Then I would fill in on WOR in New York in the mornings when Don Criqui was off. I got to work on WOR back in the early ‘80s. I was still doing Philly local stuff as well, but then in 1992 Charlie Steiner had left RKO and he was up at ESPN doing television stuff. ESPN management was thinking about starting a sports network. That’s when Charlie Steiner called me and said, “Hey, I just put your name in. We’re going to start a radio network up here.”
Back then it was only ESPN. Charlie was up there and Keith and Dan and all these really talented people. The list goes on and on and on. Charlie called me and said, “Hey, I think you’d be perfect for this ESPN Radio network gig.”
I was reluctant because I was working in Philly. I had a young family and I didn’t want to go up to Connecticut every weekend. I reluctantly said, “No, you know what, Charlie? I don’t know if I’m ready for that.” He calls me back and then I finally said, “Alright, I got to go up there and do this.” I went up there and I met with the people at ESPN and they said, “We want you. You’re the guy.”
They had hired Chuck Wilson out of Providence, Rhode Island. Then they hired me. Keith Olbermann had already agreed to leave Los Angeles where he was doing local television out there for a few years. I went to Connecticut and we took the job. We launched ESPN Radio in January of 1992. I was there until 2000. That really was the biggest thing that happened to me in my career was the ESPN Radio launch.
There were some sports networks, but there was never a sports network that put together the type of so-called talent that ESPN had. Most radio stations and most radio networks on weekends don’t put their top talent on, but sense ESPN didn’t have any weekday programming, they put everything — whether it was Chris Berman, Jack Edwards with hockey, Barry Melrose, you name it, Dick Vitale — we had access to all the ESPN television people who wanted to come in and do radio with us on weekends, because that’s when they could actually talk for more than 20 seconds over highlights.
Dan Patrick, Keith, and everybody who worked there — it was a real fun experience to work on Saturday and Sunday nights doing seven-hour shifts with no phone calls, no social media, just three guys in a booth interviewing people right after the games. We’d go to all the locker rooms. It was really, not trend-setting, but certainly influential radio for a lot of people.
I still to this day run into people now who are in their 30s and 40s, who grew up in that area say, “Hey, I used to run a board at such and such radio station when you guys were on ESPN in the ‘90s,” or, “Hey, I was in college listening to you guys in such and such city when you were on and that was the best weekend radio that was ever put on.”
I’m most proud of that. The whole thing and then doing a morning show with Mike Golic for the first couple of years at ESPN when they finally started expanding the programming. ESPN Radio was probably — after the experience in New York, which was limited in scope but still national — long-form national ESPN Radio was really it for me.
Noe: Would you say ESPN was the job you had the most fun with or would you go with something else?
TB: Obviously we had a lot of fun. You have to have fun when you’re doing seven hours on a Saturday night and seven hours on a Sunday night. It was a lot of fun, but those were long shifts. We would touch on stuff each hour because you didn’t have an audience listening for seven hours. That really was my major exposure in long-form sports talk radio.
When I left ESPN, I went to FOX and started FOX Sports Radio in Los Angeles. That’s where I pretty much built my reputation as, “He’s the guy who launches networks.” I was the first guy on ESPN Radio and the first guy on FOX Sports Radio. I was fortunate to be in those positions where people wanted me and they thought of me as a guy who can do this at this level.
I had a blast in LA with FOX. I’ve enjoyed everywhere I’ve ever worked. I’ve never taken a job where I went in there and said, “Gee, this is not what I want to do.” What I wanted to do is what people wanted to hire me to do, which was do what I do — have fun, do good sports talk, have good content, do great interviews, and be able to talk to anybody on the phone. That’s what I did for many, many decades on the national level.
Noe: For a guy that has had so much success, can you think back to a time in your career when you were really nervous or worried about doing a good job?
TB: My first job at ESPN I was definitely nervous, but I was also confident and comfortable enough to know that they hired me because they believed that I had the knowledge. Back then when they hired people at ESPN, when you went in for an interview they sat down and said, “Okay, who’s the third-string line for the Vancouver Canucks?” Nowadays nobody even knows who the first-string line of the Vancouver Canucks is.
You had to know everything and luckily I worked with a guy like Chuck Wilson who used to bring in rings of paperwork every night. He was the most over-prepared guy I’ve ever worked with. Brilliant. The guy knew his stuff. He always had the information to back up anything we talked about.
I was fortunate to work with really, really talented people, super prepared. I was prepared because I was already doing a local five-day-a-week show in Philly and then driving up to ESPN on Friday afternoons. We would meet on Friday night and lay out the weekend plans. I was super prepared because I was working seven days a week talking nothing but sports.
Noe: Do you think that things have changed for the better where you don’t have to know as much to do a good show and to connect with people?
TB: It’s made it easier because back then as I mentioned the internet was in its infancy. We had wire services on our little computer screens, but we would go out and buy the newspapers at the local newsstands on Fridays and Saturdays and Sundays and bring them in to see what was going on around the country. The access to information wasn’t as prevalent as it is now, so it’s much easier nowadays.
For anybody whether you’re in radio, TV, you’re Joe Schmo at home, you’re a college student — you can find whatever you want on the internet. I think the people on radio, TV, podcasts, the access that they have to information is not greater than the access that the average person has. When we were doing ESPN Radio back in the ‘90s, for most people we were the place you heard the final score and heard the interview after the game. Nowadays, unless you’re watching the game or listening to it on the radio, you can get that information on your phone at the same time the guy talking about it on the radio does.
The information access is greater than it’s ever been. Does that make it easier for the people on the air? Absolutely, but it also makes it easier for the people who are absorbing this or consuming this information. They don’t have to wait anymore to get it so they go to the radio and TV to hear the opinions on it as opposed to the old days when you used to open up your newspaper the next morning to read the opinion pieces by your favorite sports columnists. Now everybody’s a columnist as soon as the game is over.
Noe: What would you say is your biggest strength and your biggest weakness as a broadcaster?
TB: It’s interesting because when I started the one thing I was told as a young broadcaster was, “Hey, learn diction.” I had a Philadelphia accent. I was a kid from off the streets in Philly so I sounded like a guy off the streets in Philly. I sounded like Rocky Balboa when I would talk to people. Back then they told me the only chance I would have is to sound professional, and to study diction, study elocution. That was part of my training at the broadcasting school I went to.
Then having the collegiate courses with political science and journalism. Those things helped me as well. Back then it was all about sounding good. Nowadays it doesn’t matter what you sound like. As long as you can produce content and have people listen to you, and prove that you have a product that people want to consume, you’re in. Back then it was about sounding professional.
I was lucky as a young kid because I didn’t have a great radio voice growing up, but I trained myself to sound good. Luckily my voice was so good that it helped me in my career do other things like the Madden games and commercial work. Even when I moved to LA, The Best Damn Sports Show, and also movie roles. Not that I was an actor, but just my voice over in some movies that people would hear me in LA.
The one thing about LA is that producers are really lazy people, so when they roll out of bed in the morning, they turn on the radio — all the great talk show hosts, all the great game show hosts were DJs in LA. Jimmy Kimmel was on the radio in LA. Adam Carolla, these guys were on morning shows that producers would get up and listen to. They would hear these guys and say, “Hey, that Kimmel guy, he’s pretty good. Let’s call his agent and see if he’s interested in doing this.”
I became part of that as well because I had agents listening to me. The Madden people were listening to me. They were thinking about putting a radio component in the game. They heard me on the mornings in Los Angeles and they contacted me and asked me if I’d be interested in doing Madden. That kind of stuff makes you a well-rounded broadcaster. That’s really helped my career.
I don’t think that’s as important as it is today to get back to your initial question. It’s not about, “Hey, I was in a video game, or I was on this station, or I was on that station.” It’s about whether or not you’re marketable or somebody thinks what you do is good enough to work for them, or extraordinarily good enough to work for them, or somebody that they think you may be the next emerging star in this industry. That’s what it’s all about.
Noe: You mentioned that when you were growing up, people said you needed to sound professional. When somebody runs up to you and says, “Hey, Tony, what do I need to do to make it,” what is the most useful piece of advice you give?
TB: I just say work hard at what you want to do. I don’t tell them, “Hey, you sound like you’re from Wisconsin. You better not do this because it’s an annoying accent.” Some of the biggest talents have accents and have speech impediments. Chris Russo is one of my good friends. He doesn’t have any speech impediments, but he has a very unique sound, which you would not think of as a traditional radio sound. Mike Francesa, who is one of the all-time greats at doing this, he sounds like a guy off the street in New York. That worked in New York because the people he’s talking to are guys off the street of New York who sound like him.
It’s not about what you sound like. That’s what I tell people. Just do what you think is good, work hard, get better at what you do, and then the chips will fall wherever they may.
It depends what your goals are. My goal was not to be a national sports talk radio host. My goal was to get better every single year whatever I was doing. When I became a radio host, then I kept setting goals. “Hey, people are telling me I sound good. If I get a national show, I want to be the best that there ever was.”
I just always thought working with great people — I fed off their talents. I watched. I observed how they worked. Look at people who are really, really good at what they do and don’t copy them, but just emulate them. Say, “I know how that guy became good, and the only way I can become good is by working hard at it and hopefully someone will find me someday and say, ‘You know what? This guy’s got a chance. This woman is really, really a rising star.’” That’s how it works.
Not everybody’s going to be a star. Not everybody has to be a star. One thing I do tell people, if you’re leaving a good career to get into this, you better be prepared to do something else because there’s no guarantee this is going to work. You could have a college degree in something and you can go out there and start somewhere else and work your way up the food chain, but in radio there is no more food chain. You have to start at the lowest level and hope that you can afford to live while you’re working your way up to a job that may never happen.
That’s the thing that has changed more than anything in this business. Starting and then thinking that one day — even if you want to think that and that’s perfectly fine — that you’re going to be the next Tony Bruno, the next Dan Patrick, that may not happen. You have to be willing to deal with some of the pitfalls that come along the way on that path. It’s not all guaranteed.
There was no reason for me to be successful. Nobody said, “Hey, you’re going to be a star.” I just said I got to work hard. They told me, “Work hard. Get better. Want to be the best and learn from people who are better than you.” That’s what I do to this day. I still try to learn something every single day even though I’ve been doing this for a gazillion years.
Noe: What are your goals for 2019?
TB: I really don’t set goals anymore believe it or not. I’ve achieved pretty much everything I’ve wanted as a radio guy. I still love doing it. My podcast, I still have fun doing it. I don’t say, “Well next year I want to host my own show on such and such a radio station.” I don’t look at the business that way anymore.
I’ve talked to XM and there are some things that I’ve been working on with Robin who’s my girlfriend / producer and Luigi who’s working on our show. He started off as just a listener who came in one day, Luigi Curto, and he came in and he had that same zest for learning about the business that I had when I was younger.
I still like going to major events or going to the Super Bowl. It’ll be my 30th Super Bowl this year. Those kinds of things still motivate me because I get to see a lot of the people that I worked with. It’s pretty much everybody who’s ever worked in the industry. Going to major events like the Super Bowl and the Final Four — it’s like my annual reunion. I get to see a lot of the people that I’ve worked with and have known for a long, long time and still respect and love. I just still like doing this and I still like having fun. When I stop having fun, I’ll stop doing this.
Tony Bruno will be honored at the 2019 BSM Summit in Los Angeles, CA on February 21-22, 2019 at The Grammy Museum. This event is only open to members of the media business. If you work in radio, television or print and wish to attend, tickets can be purchased by clicking here.